Olive Oil and Beyond

In the contentious fight for edible oil superiority, I have long
maintained that all oils?except olive?should drop out of the
running. Do the others really stand a chance against a substance
that is dubbed with the delightful hyperbole ?extra virgin??

Snazzy grade names aside, olive oil is reported to have
seemingly endless health benefits, from slowing the onset of
diabetes to preventing heart disease and even certain kinds of
cancer. These are only the latest accolades for a substance that
since at least the 12th century B.C.E. has been used for purposes
as varied as sliding pyramid stones and perfuming the skin.

While olive oil is still the culinary mainstay, other oils are
now touted as part of a healthy diet, including canola, flax, and
grapeseed oil, as well as less familiar varieties like hemp oil.
Their growing popularity mirrors a new understanding of fat and its
physical effects. We now know that eating too much ?bad? fat is a
recipe for high cholesterol, obesity, and heart disease. But eat
too little ?good? fat and you may end up clogged anyway?not to
mention moody.

As Orna Izakson reports in E Magazine
(March/April 2003), the mono-unsaturated fats in olive, canola,
almond, avocado, peanut, sesame, and high-oleic safflower and
sunflower oils are now believed to be essential to good health.
There?s evidence that they actually ?help undo the heart-blocking
effects of saturated fats? found in coconut oil, palm oil, butter,
and lard, she adds. (The hardened, hydrogenated oils that are used
to make margarine and other products form their own class of nasty
fat, and they?re just as hard on the heart.)

The good-fat equation gets trickier when you factor in the
so-called polyunsaturated fats, also known as essential fatty
acids, or EFAs. These substance are divided into the Omega-3 and
Omega-6 fatty acids. Both may help to lower cholesterol, but, as
Isakson notes, the critical issue is getting the right balances:
The body needs two or three times as much Omega-3s as Omega-6s.

The Omega-3s have been shown to benefit cell membranes and may
reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, and heart disease. As an
essential component of brain cells, Omega-3s ?may provide a defense
against depression,? notes Peter Jaret in Alternative
(March 2003). We tend to get a lot of the Omega-6
fatty acids in our diet, which is why many dieticians now recommend
we seek out more Omega-3s. Flaxseed oil is a great Omega-3 source
along with certain fish oils like cod, mackerel, and salmon.

Cooking with oil raises its own issues. For instance, Chris
Meletis of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine notes that
oils heated to the smoke point can ?turn into cancer-causing

If you must sear at high heat, grapeseed and canola oils are
among your best bets. Like olive oil, grapeseed oil is high in
vitamin E and other antioxidants but it has a milder taste. Among
the oils recommended for high-heat cooking, canola oil is the
lowest in saturated fats and the highest in Omega-3s.

Flaxseed and hemp oil are also rich in Omega-3s, though neither
should be used in cooking. Heat destroys their efficacy and creates
unhealthy derivatives. Hemp has a bold vegetable-like flavor and
flax is rich and nutty?and can be used in dipping or dressing

Laine Bergeson is Utne?s research editor.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.